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Capitalism and The Advent of Garbage

Capitalism and The Advent of Garbage

Could the end of capitalism pave the way towards a truly sustainable future?

words Ashita Parekh

The issue of waste disposal and contamination has become a fast growing global epidemic that threatens the lives of humans as well as millions of species of flora and fauna around the world. Global annual waste generation is expected to rise to 3.4 billion tonnes, from 2.01 billion tonnes, over the next 30 years. And for this, the economic model of capitalism is to blame.

Gone are the days when the motto ‘less is more’ held any credibility in the field of consumerism. Multinational corporations profiting under the economic model of capitalism have been very successful in ingraining the false concept of a ‘short shelf life’ into this modern society, normalising the fad of overconsumption. It is estimated that almost 80 percent of products in the United States are single-use items, with this number only projected to rise in the near future. Disposable plastic and its byproducts have been mass produced since the rise of the industrial revolution. Today, over 8.3 billion metric tonnes of plastic waste penetrates every corner of the globe and the reason for this goes way beyond public convenience or the financial pressures of austerity. Plastic pollution exists because dealing with the environmental crisis means profit cuts for major corporations functioning within the model of a capitalist economy, threatening the sole foundation on which this profit-centric economy is based.

Underwater view of fish struggling to swim safely through masses of plastic debris

Capitalism has managed to make overconsumption a trend in both developed and developing nations through the tactful use of social media marketing. Social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook are some of the best advertising tools of the 21st century. They enable large corporations to realise their only goal of attaining unprecedented profit and surplus value by targeting individuals with specific advertisements tailored just for them. They toy with consumers’ deepest insecurities and desires, compelling them to over-consume, allowing large corporations to engage in environmentally exploitative behaviour by masking environmental deterioration as ‘obligatory measures for economic growth’.

“Just because a business professes its devotion to the health of natural systems, or makes an environmentally friendly product, doesn’t that mean it has transformed its relation to nature. The ‘greening’ of business without concomitant changes in the economic structure, and in the role of the state- including planning, a more democratic use of natural resources, and giving priority to human and environmental health over profits- permits the continuation of practices destructive to the earth’s ecosystems.” – Heather RogersGarbage Capitalism’s Green Commerce

A factory filled with piles of boxes, a symbol of consumerism, capitalism, and potential waste.
Amazon packaging waste, Credit: Jeff Spicer from Getty Images.

The trend of overconsumption coupled with convenience has also given rise to the e-commerce business, and this is changing the complexion of recycling. The aspect of convenience often makes consumers forget about the environmental consequences of packaging waste that come with online retail. Amazon Prime shipped an estimate of 5 billion packages in 2017, with an annual estimate of shipping 165 billion products, in the US alone. All the cardboard packaging waste, from such high number of sales, amounts up to almost 1 billion trees, making this business model a huge contributor to the climate crisis. 

Not just that, but disruptive ‘green capitalism’ also makes consumers believe that the real problem isn’t the rising levels of waste or the fact that multinational corporations are producing large amounts of single-use items and going unchecked. They make them believe that the epidemic of waste arises from consumers not ‘discarding’ items in an appropriate manner. Corporations cover up for overproduction by investing in the retail trend of “green products and services and eco-efficiency”. It is the individual consumers that are held responsible for their actions and choices in products, and are manipulated to believe that only their purchase decision could make or break the fate of this planet.

“I think the answer is far more simple than many have led us to believe: we have not done the things that are necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism, the reigning ideology for the entire period we have been struggling to find a way out of this crisis. We are stuck because the actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe—and would benefit the vast majority—are extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over our economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets.” ― Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate

Considering the aforementioned issues of ever-increasing capitalist consumption, climate change, and depletion of resources, there is an urgent need for a sustainable economic model that not only highlights the consequences of overconsumption but also serves as a resilient model for integrating ‘waste’ at the core of living systems. Environmental policies need to be put into place, with immediate effect, to tackle the issue of capitalism induced overproduction at its source. Despite recycling initiatives undertaken by both private and government agencies, there is still no firm solution to this intensifying waste problem. Opting for recycled materials does not necessarily alleviate this issue since most of the materials produced today are intended to be used only once. And even if single-use items are up-cycled and reused the products will eventually still end up in landfills after one or two life cycles. The fact that wasteful items are being produced at unprecedented rates to sustain a profit-centric economic model is what needs most attention. There is a need for a new environment-centric economic model that puts environmental growth before economic growth. A democratic, publicly-run model needs to be put into place to ensure the symbiotic development of the economy and the environment.

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